Wolf management continues to be a thorny topic in Montana and the issue was front and center at Friday’s Montana Environmental Quality Council meeting in Helena.
And at the core of Friday’s meeting was state funding for wolf management.
Officials from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks spoke at the meeting and were criticized for the way they’re handling wolf management in the state.
Central to the criticism was a bill passed in the last legislative session mandating FWP to allocate $900,000 for wolf management. The intention of the bill was to force the agency to spend more money on collaring and killing wolves in response to livestock conflicts, said Sen. Debby Barrett, R-Dillon. However, the agency hasn’t complied, spending the money on administration and other wolf management duties.
“There is no question about what was intended here,” Barrrett told the EQC in reference to the bill, Senate Bill 348, which she sponsored in the 2011 legislative session.
The EQC was established in 1971 with the passage of the Montana Environmental Quality Act. It is comprised of 17 members and is tasked with oversight of natural resource issues in the state and coming before the legislature. The council typically meets for two days every other month.
Central to Friday’s discussion of wolf management was SB 348. The language of the bill allows the agency to spend the $900,000 on management activities as defined by Montana law, said FWP Wildlife Bureau Chief Ken McDonald.
McDonald explained the break down of the funding for wolf management. The agency spends about $626,000 in federal money on general wolf management, including five wolf specialists around the state, McDonald said. Additionally, the agency has about $160,000 a year for the next two years from the money raised in selling wolf tags for the 2009 hunting season.
Additionally, FWP gives the U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services division $110,000 a year for their wolf management efforts.
In Montana, Wildlife Services is essentially the lead agency when it comes to handling wolf/livestock conflicts. Their personnel investigate potential wolf depredations on livestock and if FWP issues an order to remove a wolf or several wolves, Wildlife Service staff carry out this action.
The trouble is, like many federal agencies, Wildlife Services has seen a cut in their operating funds. This has led to either a limitation in services when responding to wolf depredation incidents or more money out of the pockets of livestock producers to help the federal agency kill wolves suspected of killing livestock.
The idea behind SB 348 was to use state money to help fund Wildlife Services’ activities.
“We’re working with Wildlife Services and we’re working with our own staff on how we respond to livestock predator control,” McDonald said.
FWP is trying to move wolf management in the direction of other predator management in the state, he said.
“Our effort is to roll wolves into our more traditional management programs similar to mountain lions and bears,” McDonald said.
What about increasing the state allocation to Wildlife Services, asked Sen. Gene Vuckovich, D-Anaconda. If they’re the ones most involved in responding to depredation complaints, maybe more money could help.
Joe Maurier, director of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, isn’t sure putting more FWP money toward Wildlife Services efforts is the right move.
“Is the state supposed to subsidize the federal government in their job,” he asked. “I’ve been arguing I don’t think we should.”
Maurier also questions whether some of the federal allocation FWP receives can even be directed to Wildlife Services.
FWP receives the vast majority of its funding from sportsmen, through state license sales, and a federal tax on various types of hunting equipment. Since the wolf issue impacts more than just sportsmen, maybe more state funding for Wildlife Services should come from the state legislature via a state general fund appropriation, he said.
“For these issues, including livestock loss stuff, there ought to be some kind of general fund appropriation,” Maurier said. “We’re all in this together.”
But the fact is there are far more wolves in the state than was agreed to in the wolf management plan, Barrett said. In fact, the wolf management plan was approved through the process outlined in the Montana Environmental Policy Act and said the state needed to carry a population of 150 wolves including 30 breeding pairs. Now some estimation has the wolf population in the state at about 800 wolves, maybe more.
FWP should be held to the numbers in their wolf management plan, she told the council.
“I would say now what’s going on in Montana with wildlife management under this agency is MEPA fraud,” Barrett said.
She equated the situation to a mine that had to go through the same MEPA process to get licensed.
“If a mine were exceeding their environmental review as bad as this agency is, they are fined, they are fined daily until they come into compliance,” she said. “It’s a double standard in this state today with MEPA … If the agencies don’t have to comply with MEPA than I think we should abolish it.”
All three Madison County commissioners also attended Friday’s meeting. Commissioner Dave Schulz has been the most involved in the wolf management discussion with FWP, trading letters this summer with Maurier asking him about the funding for wolf management under SB 348.
“For many of the same reasons you’ve already heard, my producers and sportsmen are very concerned about this issue,” Schulz told the council Friday.
The main concern for local livestock producers now, is the agency saddled with killing wolves causing problems for ranchers, doesn’t have the money it needs to do the job, he said.
“Again our wildlife services personnel say they just don’t have the money to get out and fly in order to help manage this issue,” he said. “We’re just incredibly, incredibly concerned about what’s going to happen if we don’t take an aggressive approach to managing wolves.”
The EQC indicated it would put wolves on the agenda for their next meeting, which is scheduled for March.